Stoichita. Johann Caspar Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy and the Hermeneutics of Shadow

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Text of Stoichita. Johann Caspar Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy and the Hermeneutics of Shadow

  • The President and Fellows of Harvard CollegePeabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

    Johann Caspar Lavater's "Essays on Physiognomy" and the Hermeneutics of ShadowAuthor(s): Victor I. StoichitaSource: RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 31, The Abject (Spring, 1997), pp. 128-138Published by: The President and Fellows of Harvard College acting through the Peabody Museum ofArchaeology and EthnologyStable URL: .Accessed: 01/01/2015 15:44

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  • 128 RES 31 SPRING 1997

    Figure 1. A.-L. GirodetTrioson, "The Origins of Painting." From Oeuvres Posthumes (Paris: J. Renouard, 1829).

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  • Johann Caspar Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy and the hermeneutics of shadow

    VICTOR I. STOICHITA translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen

    To the spirit of the Enlightenment, myths were

    nothing but fairy tales. Diderot, claiming to shed light on the dawn of painting, was no exception:

    The imagination is well practised in seeking the origin of

    Painting; and it is based on this, that poets have written the most charming of fairy-tales. If we are to believe them, then

    it was a shepherdess who, wanting to have the portrait of her lover, first drew a line with her crook around the shadow that the young man's face cast on the wall.1

    This quotation from the Encyclop?die, casually

    amalgamates sources in a venture destined to blur the

    issue rather than clarify it. It seems to highlight an

    uncertainty that was already apparent in Pliny the Elder:

    picturae initiis incertal This is one of the reasons why the

    allusion to be found in the first chapter of Rousseau's

    Essai sur ?'origin des langues (1781 ) conceals a

    particular importance. As regards the "historical" debate

    surrounding the invention of art, the author opts for a

    more theoretical approach:

    It is said that love was the inventor of drawing. He might also unfortunately have invented speech; Dissatisfied with

    it, love spurns it, for there are more active ways of

    expressing oneself. She who so lovingly traced the shadow of her Lover had such things to impart! What sounds did she use to achieve these movements with her stick?2

    This was the first time the Plinian fable had been

    explicitly regarded as a myth of love. Moreover, it was

    also the first time that the outlined shadow was

    considered to be?not a primitive mode of pictorial

    expression?but a primitive language through which

    love expresses itself.3

    This is how, within the dream of origins that haunted

    the eighteenth century, the fable of Butades became one

    of the major themes of painting.4 Something of

    Rousseau's spirit still survived at the beginning of the

    nineteenth century, in the way that Plinian iconography was addressed. In the engraving that illustrates Anne

    Louis Girodet-Trioson's Oeuvres posthumes (fig. 1), it is

    the god of love himself who illuminates the scene with a

    torch and who guides the hand of the Corinthian girl while she traces her lover's profile with an arrow

    probably from Cupid's quiver. The scene is like an

    unbroken circuit; beneath the vigilant gaze of the statue

    of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, the two lovers' hands

    and those of Eros form a continuous chain that leads

    from the torchlight to the black portrait that stands out

    on the wall. This complicated body language is also a

    transformed, exalted "language of love." Seated between

    the two lovers, the small Eros covers the young man's

    unseemly nakedness, but?because of his position and

    through his symbols (wings, torch)?there is an echo of

    flight and passion. Censure and sublimation, the real

    themes of the engraving, end up on the path mapped out by Rousseau; Girodet is probably aware that in love, "there are more active ways of expressing oneself" than

    through the actual art of drawing, but he elects to

    portray the love scene as a "transfer of power" (or as he

    calls it in a poem appended to the engraving?a

    "heavenly transport") steering its erotic energy (which to

    Girodet was basically masculine) towards the (feminine) creation of a surrogate image:

    This is a chapter of Short History of the Shadow, by Victor I.

    Stoichita, translated from French by Anne-Marie Glassheen, in press at

    Reaktion Books, London.

    1. Diderot, Encyclop?die (Neuchatel: Chez Briasson, 1765), t. 12, p. 267.

    2. J.-J. Rousseau, Essai sur l'origine des langues (Paris: Hatier,

    1994), p. 35.

    3. On this subject, see J. Derrida's commentary, De la

    grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), pp. 327-344.

    4. R. Rosenblum, "The Origins of Painting. A Problem in The

    Iconography of Romantic Classicism," Art Bulletin 39 (1957):279-290; G. Levitine, "Addenda to Robert Rosenblurn's The Origins of Painting': A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism," Art Bulletin 40

    (1958):329-331; H. Wille, "Die Erfindung der Zeichenkunst," in

    Beitr?ge zur Kunstgeschichte. Eine Festgabe f?r H. R. Rosemann zum

    9. Oktober 1960, ed. E. Guldan (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1960), pp. 279-300; H. Wille, "Die Debutades-Erz?hlung in der Kunst

    der Goethezeit," Jahrbuch der Sammlung Kippenberg, n. f., 2

    (1970):328-351; E. Darragon, "Sur Dibutade et l'origine du dessin,"

    Coloquio Artes, 2d ser., 52, no. 1 (1982):42-49; J.-CI. Lebensztejn, L'Art de la tache. Introduction ? la Nouvelle Methode & Alexander

    Cozens (Paris: ?ditions du Limon, 1990), pp. 277-300; H. Damisch, Trait? du Trait/Tractatus tractus (Paris: R?union des Mus?es Nationaux),

    pp. 61-76.

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  • 130 RES 31 SPRING 1997

    And still to this sketch she brought her vows

    In silent adoration, and the faithful image Accepted the troth she plighted the model.5

    At the time when Girodet was producing his poem and engraving, it was already accepted that the drawing of the outlined shadow was a primitive language of love.

    We find an excellent example of this in the first

    conference paper given to the Royal Academy of

    London (1801) by the Swiss Johann Heinrich F?ssli:

    Greek painting took its first faltering steps, it was rocked in the cradle by the Graces and taught to speak by Love. If ever a legend deserved to be believed it was the love story of the young Corinthian girl who with her secret lamp drew the outline of her lover's shadow just before his departure, thus provoking our sympathy to trust in it, and leading us to

    make a few observations on the first complex effort at

    painting, as well as on this linear method which seems to have remained the founding act long after the agent for

    whom it was primarily conceived had been forgotten. . . .

    The earliest experiments in this art were the skiagrams, simple outlines of shadows?similar to those which have been circulated amongst the common people by amateurs and other parasites of physiognomy under the name of silhouettes.6

    F?ssli's observations connect early pictorial language to

    the fashion, during the second half of the eighteenth

    century, for cut-outs, which originated from a pun

    pertaining to Louis XV's Minister of Finance Etienne de

    Silhouette. It spread through the whole of Europe and was cherished by the upper classes as one of their most

    popular parlor games. F?ssli's allusion is not without its

    ambiguities. Although he acknowledges that it is a

    legacy from Pliny's fable, he also seems to view the

    technique with obvious disdain, even though, a few

    years earlier, he had contributed to its popularity by

    helping to illustrate the English version of Essays on

    Physiognomy written by his compatriot Johann Caspar Lavater (published in London in 1792).

    Lavater's book describes a new device for the

    creation of silhouettes (fig. 2). The illustration relating to

    this "machine" is much clearer in the English version

    than in the first German edition (published in

    LeipzigAA/interthur in 1776). If we compare the